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Clinton's China policy under fire

As president meets with Chinese premier today, critics say US needs toget tough.

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"The Clinton administration policy has been a failure in terms of promoting human rights," says Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California. "The president just keeps riding the China tiger, and the regime has not cut him any slack," she says.

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Representative Pelosi, a member of a bipartisan congressional coalition on China, says she seeks to use trade and other tools to promote human rights in China under a policy of "sustainable engagement."

"Engagement, yes. Capitulation, no," she says.

The mounting US trade deficit with China, which could reach $60 billion this year, is another source of agitation. US policy is currently "driven by favoritism for the exporting industry elite," charges Pelosi. Instead, Washington should use its leverage as one of China's largest overseas markets to compel greater access to China for a broad range of American products.

In response to such criticism, Clinton is expected to forcefully raise human rights and other issues during his meetings today with Zhu, the first Chinese premier to visit the United States in the 1990s.

Human rights will be "frankly discussed," says Kenneth Lieberthal, the National Security Council's Asia director. In addition, the United States is currently soliciting support from other nations for a motion it will table, condemning China's human rights record, at a United Nations meeting in Geneva later this month, he said.

On bilateral trade and China's long-sought accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), administration officials stress that Washington is withholding its approval until it can get the best deal possible for securing greater access to China's market.

As a result, both Washington and Beijing have virtually ruled out an agreement during Zhu's visit in which the US would support China's entry to the WTO. Instead, a general statement outlining progress and the framework for such an agreement is likely to be announced.

Strategic partnership

Meanwhile, the Clinton administration and Beijing continue to advance the idea of a strategic partnership, raising what they call vital cooperation on nonproliferation and stability on the Korean peninsula. Still, critics say exactly what such a partnership means remains unclear.

"Who are you partnering against - Japan, Russia, India? Strategically, it now has no real sense," says James Lilley, former US ambassador to Beijing.

The current US debate over China policy is likely to continue, and possibly escalate in coming months, experts say.

Numerous lobbying groups, have staked out strong pro- or anti-China positions and won support from lawmakers. At the same time, partisan tensions are deep on Capitol Hill, and differences over China are being used to draw clear party lines. Some strategists see China emerging as an important campaign issue with the approach of the 2000 elections.

"We are going to have a ... very difficult debate over China policy for a long time," says Robert Sutter, a China expert at the Congressional Research Service who has surveyed lawmakers' opinions on China.

And such a debate is likely to perpetuate uncertainty in US- China relations, experts predict. "I am worried about volatility," says Senator Smith. "We could all use a little more certitude in the relationship."